Love Your Enemies… Except…

Israel-Hamas war: 'Hide religion,' Welsh Jewish student told - BBC News

This week I am teaching at our morning gathering of QBC and I chose this part of the sermon on the mount (Matt 5) as the focus of my reflections.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 

I chose it intentionally because it’s confronting and ludicrously specific in how we are to respond to those who mistreat us, or with whom we are in significant conflict.

I also chose this passage a few days before Hamas did their terrorist thing in Israel. Which begs the question, how does this play out in situations where there is obvious and terrible violence being perpetrated and where to not retaliate may see further deaths and injury? Hamas have it as part of their charter to ‘wipe out Jews everywhere’, and that isn’t changing. If Israel put down their guns then they would be most likely giving up their lives.

Are we to take Jesus’ teaching to that extreme?

And of course I am aware that Israel have their share of responsibility for the animosity that exists between them and Palestine. But that isn’t the question I am pondering. Where I am struggling is to think of a Christlike response that ensures the best for both groups. A solution similar to the Irish ‘power-sharing’ agreement may work, where each side puts down their guns and seeks to work co-operatively. But it’s hard to envision it…

Was Jesus just off with the fairies the day he said these words? Did he have in mind that the Jewish people should respond to Roman oppression with love and prayer? Did he see this as applying purely to personal relationships? Or was he just speaking aspirationally? He finishes with the words ‘be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect’, so there is a degree of aspirational thinking at play here.

I wonder if we would be better off if he had left detailed instructions for dealing with International conflicts? Although I doubt we would follow those rules any more than these ones.

The application of ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’, is complicated in these international long term struggles. Hatred and suspicion has been so deeply entrenched in people’s thinking that it has become a way of life.

But I am left wondering how do we disentangle this terrible mess of animosity and hatred. Is it even possible?

‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’

You just made it sound really easy Jesus…

No reference to issues of justice or how to protect the innocent, just some unmistakeable instructions that sound way too absurd to have any bearing on reality. Or is it that we have moved so far from the kingdom of God in our way of being in this world that it is our thinking that is tainted and marred. Is it like trying to see a path forward when your windscreen is literally covered in mud?

As is his style, Martin Joseph a self declared pacifist sings a powerful song referring to the Russia / Ukraine conflict titled ‘I’d take you out’. He literally says that if he were left alone in a room with Putin and a gun he’d shoot him dead. ‘I’d lose my soul’, he sings, ‘But I’d take you out.’ I imagine your soul would take a serious toll if you were to kill another human being while trying to protect others. Bonhoeffer of course found himself in an assassination plot to rid the world of Hitler. Is this a better of two evils ethical issue?

If Jesus puts it out there then I can only believe that it is achievable, but maybe we just don’t want it that much. It’s easier to choose a side in a conflict and align with a group of powerful people. It’s harder to refuse to fight, to seek the best for the other and to pray for them, because then you get in the middle and you get hit from both sides.

If there were easy answers to these conflicts then we would have found them by now. Happy to hear your thoughts…

It’s Not Working..

It’s the shortest and snappiest of comments on the state of the church in Australia.

After presenting her data for 30 minutes and showing the ongoing decline of the majority of churches in Australia, this was Ruth Powell’s conclusion.

It’s not working…

What we have been doing to live out the gospel in our society and culture is not working’

And it hasn’t been working for a long time!

Now to be fair Ruth did indicate that by this simple numeric metric larger churches did appear to be ‘working’. ‘The attractional church works‘, she said. The problem is that it is resource intensive, so that when small churches try to copy them it usually results in either leader burnout or a pale imitation of what can be achieved with top rate musicians, speakers and resources.

Her point was that the vast majority of Australian churches are small 50-60 people and while the larger ones may be able to attract people into the building, 95% of those without those capacities are struggling just to fill their rosters each Sunday let alone fill the building.

We put a lot of weight on filling the building don’t we?… As if this was the best indicator of health and maturity. Don’t get me wrong – it does tell a story. When we count the numbers on a Sunday morning it tells us exactly how many people were present in church on that day.

Let’s be clear – this is what we are measuring and by that measurement the National Church Life Survey tells us that the church in Australia has been in decline for some time now.

I would assume a correlation between higher attendance and formation into Christlikeness, but it’s not a given. I remember having this smash me in the face one Sunday. I looked out when I was preaching and saw Clive in the congregation. Inwardly I thought ‘it’s good to see Clive in church so consistently.’ As Clive was a new Christian I was happy to see he had begun to prioritise church attendance. But what about his wife Jane? She was rarely in church. I worried about her.’

Eventually one morning I caught up with her and began chatting. She was quick to let me know why she was rarely in church. ‘I can’t stand to be around him! He’s off with prostitutes Saturday night, then in church on Sunday morning. I can’t stand by him and sing songs of worship!’

I realised I had equated regular church attendance with ‘doing ok’ and regular absence with ‘not doing ok.’ Not in this case. Perhaps not in other cases too.

To be fair I think there is a correlation of sorts, but it’s not a straight line. Perhaps it’s our easiest measurement to take as it would be a lot trickier to measure Christlikeness, unselfishness, kindness, generosity and so on.

But back to the ‘it’s not working’ statement. How do we progress from here? Do smaller churches just keep trying harder to be a pale imitation of their highly resourced larger churches? In my own context I stopped worrying about the attendance numbers a long time ago and became more concerned with the question of how we are living our faith out in the world. This quote from Martin Robinson has been formative in my own leadership:

“What would it look like for a church to function in such a way that the primary goal of church life was not to attract more people into attendance and membership, but to produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with them” 

~ Martin Robinson ‘Invading Secular Space’ p.111.

I’m not sure that question is given sufficient priority in our thinking, but rather it is hoped that if they come on Sunday they will be then ready to go back out. If our goal were to prepare people for the life that they live each day then I wonder what we would change to enable this to actually take place?

I know for some who are busy and focused in their workplace the Sunday gathering is like a drink of fresh water after walking in a desert. For some their Sunday experience is an essential part of their ongoing sustenance, but given we now count 1 in 4 attendance as ‘regular’ it would seem that for many it is not the case.

It’s been said many times that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. I sense many of us are feeling the reality of this, but we are mystified as to what we can do that is different – and that will actually better equip people for their everyday life.

We can safely assume that if someone is turning up 1 in 4 to a Sunday gig then then either a) they are struggling to see the value of the gathering, or b) They have found ‘better’ things to do with their Sundays and are simply ‘ticking a box’.

When it comes to reimagining how we can “produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with themwe are often caught in a type of Sunday centric stalemate. If we try to adjust the parameters of discipleship by re-shaping or scaling back on Sunday events we instantly run into opposition from those who find sustenance in Sundays and also those who struggle with change. This often leads to a decline in attendance – a correlating decline in giving and then the inability to pay the pastor who initiated the process. That pastor is then forced to leave and it is concluded that ‘these new ideas really don’t work! Best to stick with what we know, even if it isn’t working…’ If you’ve led churches for long enough then you would be aware of this challenge.

Perhaps the answer is to plant a new church and instill something completely different in the DNA – a focus on discipleship for everyday life rather than simply Sunday gathering? But what does that look like? Having been down this road around 20 years ago with our Upstream community church plant I know that for many Christians anything that doesn’t resemble their safe familiar Sunday experience can be a bridge too far. Entering a space without a dedicated kid’s program or a tight band can make them weak at the knees. For many it just doesn’t ‘feel like church’ so they resist. Even for those who aren’t Christians we had the experience of them asking ‘ok so when do you guys do the real thing?’

Perhaps we need to seriously look at combining our efforts in such a way that smaller neighbourhood churches operate in partnership with a larger regional church? I dunno how that would all play out, but perhaps it would mean that smaller churches working their butts off just to get Sunday happening could throw their hand in with a well resourced church and then turn their own efforts to highly focused discipleship groups. (Of course this is in an ideal world where people’s egos are deflated and where personal agendas don’t rule the roost.)

I am aware of 4 country churches all within driving distance of one another who are struggling to find pastors. And the focus of their efforts is largely on making their own Sunday gathering happen. Surely… surely… surely… they could see their way to having larger combined gatherings and then operating in smaller focused groups outside of those gatherings?

But I sense I am dreaming and expecting too much – that people would be able to lay down minor theological differences (even bigger ones too) to pursue a church better equipped for the world in which they live.

The bottom line is that more of the same isn’t the answer to impacting our society with the message of Jesus. And that ought to concern us more than it currently does.

As a ‘non-pastor’ at the moment i can theorise all I like but dreaming and scheming is easy. What gets hard – really hard – is putting new ideas into action with a community of people who are weary, dis-spirited and suspicious of anything that differs from the norm. If you are one of those leaders well aware that ‘it isn’t working’, but completely at sea when it comes to fresh alternatives then I pray you are blessed with wisdom, courage, creativity and perseverance because you will need all of these qualities and more.

For now I cheer from the side-lines and I add my voice to those who are saying ‘surely we aren’t just going to keep flogging this horse because she died a long time ago.’

Toxic Cynicism

It’s a thing. A nasty thing – that is easy to laugh along with but that in the longer term often erodes both bad and good aspects of the subject under critique.

Cynicism and Its Negative Impact

Around here I ask questions of the church, mission and our interaction with the world around us (hence ‘backyard missionary’) and I admit – confess even that in days gone by my critique has had a slice of toxic cynicism in it. At times I have gone beyond the brief I gave myself to question, challenge and critique and at times I have just been sharp and destructive – albeit under the guise of questioning.

Quite honestly I am sorry for any damage that may have done to those who have also been questioning and critiquing but for whom peace hasn’t been found, but instead the whole faith aspect of life has been cast off either because the church wronged them or because some questions of faith couldn’t easily be reconciled.

If you’re wondering where these thoughts come from, I’ve been in the Gold Coast the last few days attending and speaking at the Exponential Church Planting Conference. I haven’t been to many conferences of late so it was interesting to be back in that space and reflecting on ways forward for the Australian church.

I met a lot of new people – which was inevitable, as I only knew 3 of the 600 who were attending. Some conversations were short and sharp, others longer and meaningful. One of the latter involved chatting to a couple who had recently closed their church plant after several years because, in their words, ‘it was no longer a community centred on Jesus.’ (Just as aside I wonder how many other churches would close if that criteria were applied with rigour…)

They shared a rather tragic story of planting with great hope, attracting a large number cynical and disaffected Christians / Ex-vangelicals and then walking with them as their faith wandered further and further from its centre. In the end it wasn’t a community centred on Jesus – it was a community of people who wanted to be good people in the world. A moment of clarity came for this couple when they surveyed their church on their hopes and dreams, their beliefs and their sense of commitment to the future. The results were devastating revealing that the majority of their church were really not committed to following Jesus and their questioning had led them further away from faith.

To their credit the couple closed the church – because it was no longer a church… It was a group of friends for whom an organised event had been scheduled and they would turn up and enjoy it (if they could.)

Curiously, there wasn’t massive disappointment at its closing – just some comments that of course they would all still hang out ‘organically’. Would it surprise you if I said that didn’t happen?

A community that began with such hope got tangled up, and self destructed. This was a really sad story to hear and I could feel the pain from this couple who started with such hope, only to finish up in such devastation. Certainly one of the hardest parts of my own experience leading churches for the last 30 odd years has been watching people say ‘yes’ to Jesus and then at some point later lose their way as they deconstructed their faith to a point where nothing was important – nothing was to die for.

But back to toxic cynicism – the kind of cynicism that moves towards destruction rather than towards faith and hope. You will know it when you feel it. It doesn’t ask questions that call for a deeper dive into our theology and ecclesiology. It just tears down, shames and despises the subject in question.

For example – church… Church is such an easy target and it isn’t hard to dislike some practices or be hurt by ‘the church’. How we deal with that is another thing.

It seems the word of our time is ‘deconstruction’, both of faith and of our understanding of church and how it operates. I have done my own fair share of deconstructing over the years. I have shifted ground significantly on some important theological concepts and at times I have simply had no answers whatsoever to disturbing questions. On occasions so I have then been forced to simply trust that God is good even when I can’t grasp what he is doing (or not doing.)

As well as doing my own re-thinking and pondering I have been keen to ensure that church is a place where questioning and doubting is welcomed. We are all gonna ask questions – we are all gonna review our theology from time to time so why not have a safe space to do it? Churches that don’t welcome questioners will generally create a brittle faith that does ok in happy times, but literally shatters when under duress.

So when does deconstruction become dangerous?

When it moves into cynicism, because the toxic cynicism is only a step away.

Deconstruction asks ‘tell me again, why do we meet like we do for church… Can we do this in other ways? Can we re-imagine this whole thing?!

Cynicism snipes and growls – ‘church?! Yeah right… I’m so over it – same stuff every single week and that guy is so deadly boring!’

Toxic cynicism takes it one step further. It says ‘hey church sux right? Let’s just catch up, but let’s no have meaningless prayers, lame singing or preaching that assumes there is one ‘right’ way to look at something.’

And it really becomes dangerous when it allowed to be the dominant culture of the group. When toxic cynicism is allowed to rule the show unchecked, then faith has a hard time surviving. I know we all have times of cynicism and frustration with the church, but if we lead with this it can be utterly devastating. When this is our primary MO then it also becomes tiresome to be around. It ‘white ants’ faith, both of the cynic and of those around him or her.

To move back a step, I’m not afraid of helping people deconstuct – in fact I think its an important stage of faith (see James Fowler for more on this) but ‘deconstructing’ is about dismantling unhelpful paradigms and opening new ways of seeing things. Take Father Christmas as an example – sooner or later we have to deconstruct that belief and the whole myth that goes with him. Maturity requires it. In the same way faith matures and toughens as it encounters questions, doubts and challenges and moves thru them.

For those of us who are leaders, the great challenge is to know how to create a safe space for doubt and questioning without simply facilitating a group deconstruction and abandonment of faith. It means being strong on some things and choosing not to negotiate or question – even when we are unable to fully explain a question ourselves. It means holding our own inner cynic in check when it would be easier to snipe and sneer. I feel like this has been one of my own practices in over the last few years. I can enmpathise with people’s questions and doubts without needing to affirm them with a cynical ‘oh yeah, tell me about it…’

Deconstruction isn’t going to go away. Unless we lose all connectivity to the world around us, we are now permanently exposed to people who ask questions like we do, and if we use google to seek out the answers then that algorithm will feed us with more doubt and will lead us further down the rabbit hole of toxic cynicism. So if we can expect deconstruction to continue to be a thing in the days ahead, what might we do to help people keep going with the faith journey?

Build a strong foundation – Build it on core essentials of the faith. Keep circling back to Jesus, the things he taught, the things he did and the significance of the resurrection.

Keep questions on the radar – so that we are always acknowledging mystery and paradox – I wonder if sometimes people get knee deep in faith only to discover that the water they are soon to be swimming in is murky and unclear at times. If we can negate the element of surprise and disappointment by acknowledging it early then I feel like we might do a better job of dealing with doubt. It will happen. We will ask questions together, but we will hold as not negotiable that God is good and that Jesus is our living picture of what he is like.

Hold your theological ground – there are plenty of issues that I see as unclear in scripture – which is why we have so many denominations. But you will have some core convictions that you simply can’t negotiate on. For example the bodily resurrection is one of the central points of faith, whereas the ‘shape of creation’ is much more up for grabs.

Don’t be afraid to nail your colours to the mast on stuff that matters and allow those who want to leave to leave.

And if you’re reading this as a cynic then please heed the warning that you could just be a step away from being a spiteful, sneering toxic cynic. Maybe better to deal with the source of your cynicism and just be aware that it is present in your make-up.

So by all means ask difficult questions, seek more satisfactory answers, but when you get to a place of mystery and bewilderment choose to pray for faith to move forward rather than allowing toxic cynicism to win the day.

ADD or Opportunity Overload?

I’m getting used to a very new headspace.

Last Monday after having spent some time training up the new owners of Brighton Retic, I had no work. No need to accompany them and no caravan work in the wings either. Monday was empty. As was Tuesday, Wednesday and… you get the idea…

What happened is that I started noticing things that needed doing, imagining some new possibilities and dreaming about some fun activities. By the end of the week Danelle told me I needed to get checked for ADD!

It began with replacing the shower on our caravan – a Jayco Silverline with a crappy plastic shower that inevitably cracks and leaks. I had been pondering how I could do this for weeks – because once you start you’re kinda committed… I figured out a plan of attack and managed to get a much better shower base installed in just a day of work. That was enjoyable. I like fixing things and learning new skills.

Then we began thinking about how we could remove some lawn and build some retaining walls for veggies. Which then expanded into buying a dingo / bobcat to dig it out and then while we are at it to replace the existing sleeper walls with limestone – all 70m… With the right machine it couldn’t’ be that hqrd…right?… Cue a Gumtree and Marketplace search for dingo/kanga.

Then my son Sam began to talk about going halves on a boat… I don’t need a boat and I haven’t been hankering for one, but it could be fun. Maybe we could buy one for summer and see how it goes and whether we use it or not… I do like boating. So now I have a Gumtree and Marketplace search for boats too. I like the idea of using some of my free time to head out on the water with my kids. Unfortunately Danelle gets seasick so it’s not really something she could join in.

Improving my fitness has been a goal that has eluded me as the body refuses to play nice, but I have started walking (which honestly feels so lame after running) and then I saw Sam’s old bike sitting gathering dust and rust so I took it for a service and decided I’d break up the walking with cycling and swimming when things warm up. Another new activity to add to my life! I have taken it out a couple of times now and it’s a nice change from walking. Once my butt cheeks adjust it will be a lot more enjoyable.

Then… I have also noticed a fair number of people sleeping in their cars in our local carparks. I thought it would be good to put on breakfast for them one day a week. That idea has been shelved because we are travelling so much between now and January that we just couldn’t commit to a weekly timeslot. I did try and invite one guy (I call him ‘Mr Convertible’ because he lives in a soft-top Auid) to join me one day for brekkie, but he refused. So I’m pondering how we do that in a way that worjks… In February my car goes in for some panel work – for 3 long weeks – so that might be the time to get the ball rolling on that.

Then we saw a house for sale.. yeah I know… another idea… But it was for $275K! It was a legit house in Yanchep, that had been abandoned and squatters had moved in and trashed it, before it was repossessed by the bank. But $275K?… If Danelle and I spent 6 months doing all that needed doing we could probably double that value. So we went and had a look on Sunday, along with most of Perth! I doubt it will sell for $275K, but if it does then that might be our project for a time. My mind was zinging with the possibilities there.

Alongside these projects have been some new writing ideas, possible job opportunities that I am aware of and then general home maintenance that has been neglected while I have been in busy mode.

The great challenge is to know what to focus on and what to ignore. My goal is not to simply fill the free space with activity and commitments. But I realised very quickly that I don’t like sitting still and doing very little. It’s good to have a project or ten on the go.

This time of year I am normally squeezing in 8 or 9 retic jobs each day and running hard. This morning I slept in until 6.30am, went for a mountain bike ride out to the Yaberoo trail and then spent the day hanging with Ellie before heading out to lunch with her.

Tomorrow I squeeze in one more diesel heater before an elbow operation on Wednesday – an arthroscopy to clear out years of accumulated debris that is limiting movement and quite painful. Of course that will take 6 weeks to heal, so further jobs that involve physical work may well be delayed until my elbow heals. That makes it a good time to get some writing done… But here too I have so many idea bouncing around at the moment and I haven’t settled on where I want to head next.

A-D-D? Maybe… Or maybe it’s just the overwhelm that comes from so many possibilities, now that life has slowed.

There is an awareness that at least for a period, we don’t want to be ‘tied down’ and limited in our movements – but we also know that sometimes things of substance happen because we commit to longer processes and activities.

Tensions and opportunities. Just finding my bearings in this new space.

I guess I could just get stuck into Netflix…